Against the Grain

Why Trump Should Be Worried About 2020

The unstable coalition between suburban conservatives and blue-collar populists is showing signs of strain heading into the presidential election.

AP Photo/Thibault Camus
Nov. 11, 2018, 6 a.m.

Democrats rode a blue wave to win back the House, but this midterm election should be seen as more of a realigning election than a repudiation of President Trump. There was a Democratic anti-Trump tidal wave that swept out House Republicans in the suburbs, but Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate because of the president’s ongoing strength with white working-class voters.

Of the 32 House seats Democrats have netted so far, all but two of them are in predominantly suburban or urban districts. Of the 25 Republican-held districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016— all of them in the suburbs— at least 19 of them will be held by Democrats next year.

But in the small towns and rural outposts where Trump made impressive gains in the presidential election, Republicans largely maintained their strength and the president was an asset in turning out base voters. Republicans will be expanding their Senate majority by 1-3 seats, thanks to Trump-friendly battlegrounds that were impervious to the blue wave. As The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman noted, Democrats didn’t win a single seat where Trump won 55 percent of the vote in the last election. Standout Democratic recruits in Trump-friendly districts like Brendan Kelly in Illinois and Amy McGrath in Kentucky fell short despite ample resources.

The results of the suburban-small town trade-off were a mixed bag. Against the odds, Republicans comfortably held the governorship in Ohio and won the governor’s race in Florida, and Gov. Rick Scott is narrowly leading in that state’s too-close-to-call Senate race. But Democrats swept through the Rust Belt firewall that Trump constantly brags about winning in 2016, toppling Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, dominating in Pennsylvania, and squelching Republican opportunities in Michigan. Virginia and Colorado now look like comfortably blue states, where Democrats netted a combined four House seats (all in the suburbs), while fast-growing and diverse Georgia and Arizona are now competitive battlegrounds for the next presidential election.

What should worry Trump is the GOP’s glaring slippage in the suburbs, where brand-name Republicans were unable to sustain the unstable coalition of white-collar professionals and populist-minded Trump fans that propelled so many down-ballot Republicans to victory in 2016. In Wisconsin, Walker lost serious ground in the deeply conservative suburban stronghold in Waukesha County. Pragmatic Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona, who evolved into a Trump ally running for the Senate, is lagging behind Trump’s performance in vote-rich Maricopa County (Phoenix). Her inability to hit Trump’s vote share in the state—despite her pandering to his supporters—shows how hard it will be for Republicans to play both sides of the intraparty divide.

Even in races where Republicans won—holding off Beto O’Rourke in the Texas Senate race and defeating Stacey Abrams in the Georgia governor’s race—there were ominous trend lines for the GOP. Abrams, despite running a progressive campaign in a red state, notably improved on Hillary Clinton’s performance in the suburban Atlanta counties that were once solidly Republican. Democratic dominance in the Texas population centers brought O’Rourke within 2 points of Sen. Ted Cruz, and flipped House seats around Houston and Dallas. If the Trump campaign has to invest valuable money in Texas and Georgia in 2020, that bodes poorly for his reelection chances (even if he holds onto both states). The shifts in these states are a lot more about Trump than about the celebrity Democratic candidates.

Some analysts, like Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow Henry Olsen, have argued that the Republican Party needs to remake itself in a Trumpian manner to win in 2020, adopting populist policies on trade and a less interventionist approach on foreign policy. “The soldiers in the GOP’s army are Midwestern and Southern working-class voters. Why not take advantage of the new playing field Trump has created?” Olsen writes. He cites the 21 districts that swung to Trump after backing President Obama in the 2012 election as evidence.

But of those 21 Obama-Trump districts, 10 of them are suburban seats that are now trending away from Trump. Democrats won nine of those 10 Obama-Trump suburban seats on Tuesday (and netted five GOP-held seats from the bunch). Even with Trump’s strong showing among his core voters, the trade-off loses the Republican Party votes.

Ignoring the reasons why upper-middle class voters are drifting away from the GOP will lead to disaster for Trump in the next election. The midterm results from Pennsylvania demonstrate that the president’s standing in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs could drop even below what it was in the 2016 presidential election. Republicans are nervous about losing critical ground in suburban Milwaukee, a region known for its GOP dominance and strong turnout operation. Even with Ohio and Florida in his column, Trump will still need to break through in another traditionally Democratic state to win reelection.

The silver lining for Trump is that the 2018 election was largely a referendum on his performance, while the 2020 presidential campaign will be a choice between two candidates. It’s possible that if the economy continues its strength, just enough suburban voters will choose Trump over a more-liberal alternative and he’ll maintain strong support with his blue-collar base to win reelection. He’ll have to win back some of the white-collar voters his party lost this week, however.

It would be a lot easier for Trump to maintain the GOP’s volatile coalition if he focused more on his economic accomplishments and less on exacerbating the cultural divisions in the country. Obsessing over a caravan of migrants likely juiced turnout in red states like Missouri and Indiana, but it backfired in the parts of the country he needs to win for a second term. The midterm results showed that there’s a pathway for Trump to win a second term, but his 2018 playbook will have to be abandoned.

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